Susan Barry by Rosalie Winard

Susan R Barry Ph.D.

Eyes on the Brain


Help for Math Anxiety?

Can an ancient Chinese tool help reduce math anxiety?

Posted Dec 26, 2010

When I was a little girl, my grandfather loved to play number games with me and my siblings. Even though he had little formal education and spent most of his life as a worker in garment factories, he was entirely at home with numbers. If you showed him a long column of figures, he could sum them in an instant. For him, doing mental calculations was a form of play.

So I was dismayed, when I first started teaching, to discover that many college students abhor doing simple calculations in their head. If I threw out to my class a few numbers to multiply together or asked the class to calculate powers of ten, many students froze. Even if they got the right answer, they were hesitant to volunteer it, so insecure were they in their powers of calculation.

Should I, as a teacher, worry about this? Some argue that mental number crunching is an obsolete skill that's been replaced by the ever-present calculator. But I wonder if a poor ability to do mental calculations adds to math anxiety. While the calculator provides us with an immediate answer, the whole calculation process becomes mysterious - a black box. Numbers lose their sense of magnitude and are reduced to answers on the calculator's display window. What's more, doing mental calculations may be an important way to exercise and improve our working memory -we have to hold the numbers in our head before we can manipulate them. A good working memory is important for combining different facts and experiences in novel ways, thus leading to new ideas.

So, I was very intrigued by a radio program I heard recently on teaching arithmetic. In response to declining math skills among their students, some Japanese schools are bringing back an ancient calculating device - the abacus. As the students learn to manipulate the beads on the abacus, they learn to add and subtract. Some might argue that dependence on an abacus is no different than dependence upon a calculator, but this is not at all the case. Not only did the students become adept at doing calculations with the abacus, they become adept at doing calculations without it. There is even a name for this mental skill - "anzan."

Why is the abacus such an effective teaching device? As the children did calculations in their head, their fingers danced across the page as if they were manipulating imaginary beads on an imaginary abacus. This I think is the key to the abacus' power. Most of us first learn to count and add on our fingers. An elementary knowledge of numbers is embedded in the way we move our hands. The abacus may serve as an extension of the students' fingers, allowing them to equate various calculations with specific movements and actions, thus harnessing their "muscle memory" when they calculate in their head.

I was struck too by the similarity between this story and that of Helen Keller's. Since Helen was deaf and blind, she learned to communicate via a manual alphabet. Words were literally spelled into her hand. Not only did Helen Keller use the manual alphabet to talk with others but she also used it to talk to herself. As John Macy wrote in The Story of My Life, "When she [Helen] is walking up or down the hall or along the veranda, her hands go flying along beside her like a confusion of birds' wings."

These stories remind us that our actions and thinking are intimately linked, and we can harness these connections in teaching and learning. When students mastered the abacus, they developed more confidence in their ability to do math. Not only did they avoid math anxiety, but some, like my grandfather, discovered great pleasure in numbers.